Lewis and Clark’s compass, the top hat Lincoln wore when he was assassinated, the oldest pair of Levi’s extant (brown duck, not blue denim), Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, the original Kermit the Frog puppet and, yes, even Ron Popeil’s Veg-O-Matic II. These things ended up where all priceless national treasures eventually end up: in the capable hands of Smithsonian conservators.
As the unsung protectors of American heritage, these dedicated men and women tirelessly analyze, repair, and preserve our cultural artifacts so that future generations may gaze upon the glory that is Jerry Seinfeld’s “puffy shirt,” for example. The technology used in the Smithsonian laboratories to combat the ravages of time is impressive: gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS); optical microscopy with image analysis (OM-IA); x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers; x-ray diffraction (XRD)…. Enough acronyms to make even a congressman’s head spin. Sometimes, though, the best weapons in the conservator’s arsenal are ordinary household items like erasers, vinegar, and rubbing alcohol. Use these tips to safeguard your own family heirlooms, whether that entails lifting a stain from a vintage wedding dress or preserving and storing that bold but challenging work your father painted “in the style of Francis Bacon.”
The basics of paper conservation include using acid-free storage materials and maintaining the correct microclimate (air flow, cool temperature, less than 60 percent humidity, no sunlight). You should also dust regularly and use a HEPA vacuum, since dust is both hygroscopic (attracts water) and acidic. But what about cleaning precious papers? Easy. Buy a Staedtler Mars white vinyl eraser for a buck. Then use a steel box grater to grind down a handful of eraser shavings. Sprinkle the spongy shavings on the document and gently roll them across the surface. The shavings pick up embedded dirt and dust, turning from white to grey to “scuzzy.” Paper conservator Janice Ellis used this trick to remove 18th century grime from a George Washington letter. While this isn’t ideal for a Picasso pencil sketch, it will make the wedding license you dropped in the gutter outside the Graceland Chapel look like new again.
If you own a contemporary painting, it’s probably acrylic. The dominant art paint since the 1950s, acrylic is cheap, fast drying, and easy to work with. For conservators, though, it’s a nightmare. Unlike with oil paint molecules, which actually become more stable as they age, the bonding between acrylic polymers is extremely weak. Oil paintings also have a protective coat of varnish to repel dirt and dust, while an acrylic work’s sticky surface attracts airborne particles like flypaper. Equally troubling, acrylic paint is so soft at room temperature that the surface can be dented by an errant fingernail. Extreme care must be taken when transporting or storing these delicate canvases. Bubble-wrapping them is the most common and egregious mistake. The impressions of tiny circles left behind will spoil your Antiques Roadshow debut. Instead, says paintings conservator Jia-sun Tsang, build a cardboard box with the help of duct tape. Then “float” the painting inside with spacers so that it doesn’t touch the sides. Once the box is sealed, go crazy with the Bubble Wrap. Congratulations. You are now a conservator.
It’s been repeated so often everyone believes it: Use club soda to remove wine, cola, and food stains. If this were true, dry cleaners wouldn’t be so busy. The reason it doesn’t work is because most things we consume are acidic. Remember the stain commandment “like to dissolve like.” Club soda has a pH ranging from 5.2 (barely acid) to 7 (neutral), depending on the brand, a feeble solution to eradicate a nasty food stain. Some chemists believe that an acid-based stain can be removed by treating it with an alkaline solution, thereby neutralizing the pH. But textile conservator Mary W. Ballard notes that this reaction produces salt, which sets the stain and only makes things worse. The acid you need to blast acidic stains out is white vinegar. Mix it with a dye-free dishwashing liquid like Ivory. Apply (dab, don’t rub) and wait five minutes. Then rinse with cold water and blot dry. Repeat if necessary. Soak stubborn stains overnight. If you can’t be bothered, wear black and eat infrequently.
Don Williams is the Smithsonian’s wood expert. What he doesn’t know about wood would fit on the head of a pin, with room left over for a family of dust mites. He’s been entrusted with some of this country’s most valuable wooden icons, spanning the historical gamut from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer to Archie Bunker’s ratty wing chair. And guess what? Williams says the bane of wood conservation is the same at the Smithsonian as it is in your own living room: water rings on the furniture. Of course conservators don’t call them water rings. They refer to these telltale stains as “water-induced opacity.” The antidote: flatten a cotton ball and stuff it in a soda bottle cap. Then moisten the cotton with two drops of rubbing alcohol. Place the bottle cap on the ring (make sure the cotton doesn’t touch the wood) and wait two minutes. The solvent vapors will either diminish the “bloom” or erase it completely. Repeat the process until the entire ring is treated. And next time be careful where you put those chilled martini glasses.
For more tips on safeguarding precious objects, pick up a copy of the layman’s conservation bible: Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms and other Prized Possessions, by master Smithsonian conservator Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar.